Interview by Barry Egan
The late Maya Angelou said that ‘Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.’
One of our finest chanteuses Carol Keogh — sitting opposite me after wowing all and sundry with her performance on The Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie — has a similar cathartic relationship but with pain and memory in song. Asked if when she is singing a song about a painful emotion does she revisit that painful emotion, she smiles, and says Sphinx-like: “Sometimes.”
“It is something you can’t really control. You want to connect with it at a basic level or you are not really delivering. But it wouldn’t be very often that I would revisit the emotion that prompted the song, there is the very odd time.”
She pauses and her mind switches to another time, another place. “There is a song which actually isn’t on the new album Mongrel City, but I am going to put it out as a single in the next few weeks called My Father The Jeweller. It is actually quite an old song.”
Was he a jeweller? “He was a jeweller. He passed away last year. When he was very ill, more so than when he died, the odd time that song would choke me when I sang it,” Carol recalls, “but it was never at the moment that I thought it was going to hit. So you can’t really predict how these things are going to affect you. But if it doesn’t hit an emotional truth in yourself, how can you be expected to do the same with other people?”
The story behind Austin City Limits is almost as compelling as My Father The Jeweller. “There is a couple of characters that appear in Austin City Limits. I played the Austin City Limits festival, going back a few years ago, with a previous band, Automata, and while we were there, there was an awful lot of imagery created by a man called Daniel Johnston, who is a songwriter as well as an outsider. He was revered in lots of ways. I actually saw him perform while I was there. He came out as a guest with The Frames/The Swell Season. That was quite a privilege to see.”
“One of the stories about him is about when his parents realised how ill he was, because he suffered from a lot of mental illness in his life: when he tried to wrestle the controls of a small plane from his father while they were in the air and almost killed both of them because,” adds Carol, “he thought the demons were coming to get him and the evil eye. So he is referenced in the song.”
“And then there is a reference to another lady that we encountered who worked in the motel that we were staying in. She was very friendly and very nice. We got to know her because we were there for nearly a week. The day we were leaving, she had kind of let on to one of the band members that her family were concerned about her welfare, particularly her mental health. When we were leaving some members of her family were coming in a car to pick her up to take her to hospital. She didn’t want to go. So she was staying in the lobby with a paper sign that she had hand-written with ‘Help me’ on it. I was standing outside, seeing the family come in. So that is the other character in the song. So it is a kind of a reference to mental health issues. It talks about ‘crazy angels being the mirrors to our souls.’"
Why do those two stories resonate with you so?
“I think it was because it made me think about mental health issues I suppose. “
And there but for the grace of God go I etc, I say to her.
“Yeah. And very often there is a fine line with creative people — they are in that area where they are exploring things and open to the darker elements that are in our psyches . So it is kind of touching on that."
Shine a light into the darker parts of your psyche what would I find?
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that!” she laughs.” I think you’d find a frightened child or something but I think you’d find that in all of us. But I do that myself in the song-writing. I have to anyway. It is a kind of empowerment rather than therapy.”
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